Mathematical Olympiad encourages students toward math, successful careers

April 18, 2017

Daniel McArdle

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     It’s easy to hate math when you don’t understand it. But teaching students to appreciate math for all its creative perks at a young age can encourage a lifelong appreciation for the subject that most students want to avoid.

     UCCS will host the 34th Annual Colorado Mathematical Olympiad April 28 in Berger Hall. Middle and high school students from across the state will participate in the event, which spans two weeks.

     The event will begin at 9 a.m. The Olympiad hosts around 300 students annually, making it the largest essay-based mathematics competition in the U.S., though larger competitions feature multiple-choice questions.

     In past events, over 1,000 students attended the event at UCCS, but this number dropped because school districts stopped providing transportation, according to math professor Alexander Soifer, founder and chair of the Mathematical Olympiad.

     The open-ended structure of the competition encourages creative thought while exposing students to cutting-edge mathematical inquiry, said Soifer.

     “The Olympiad is important, because we offer problems totally unlike those that students see in school,” said Soifer, who creates the majority of the problems.

     “(The problems) require no knowledge. Students from grades six to 12 get the same problems; therefore, we have no emphasis on knowledge. The emphasis is on creativity.”

     Students will spend four hours solving five problems ranging in difficulty. Judges will spend a day and a half grading the problems. On May 5, students will return to UCCS to receive prizes, awards and Olympic medals.

     Students who receive medals in the competition are eligible for two college scholarships. The first, funded by donations from school districts, can be used at any accredited university in the country within three years of graduation.

     The second is a $2,000 award for student medalists who enroll in UCCS as freshmen.

     “Now we have an admission window for those who won bronze, silver, gold medals – the same admission window that we have for Olympians,” said Soifer.

     “We should award not only talented arms and legs, but talented minds as well.”

     At the awards ceremony, Venkat Reddy, interim chancellor and the executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, will address the winners.

     Anyone is welcome to attend all of the stages of the Olympiad.

     For Soifer, exposure to novel mathematical problems is a key component of the Olympiad’s mission. Soifer believes that the competition can make up for some of the gaps in typical math classes, often leaving students uninterested in the subject matter.

     “I know there is anxiety toward math, particularly because of less than perfect math teachers. Our problems are much closer to real mathematics research questions than to high school problems,” he said.

     One student from Air Academy High School student won first prize in the competition as a junior and senior and continued on to a successful career in mathematics. Soifer mentored the student, who got a full scholarship at CSU and now works as a tenured math professor at Ohio State University.

     Another student from Rangely, Colo., attended Harvard after winning first prize in the competition and is currently a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

     “I want to find the talents. I prefer C-students who are future professors over straight-A-students who are not the greatest talents,” said Soifer.

     “It starts with curiosity; people without curiosity cannot get anywhere.”